Berrien County wineries face devastating losses from Polar Vortex

NOW: Berrien County wineries face devastating losses from Polar Vortex

We are finally starting to warm up, but it is easy to remember the stinging cold we felt this past winter with the polar vortex. That’s especially true for farmers and winemakers in Berrien County, who are now discovering the extensive damage done to their fruit crops and wine grapes.

The polar vortex hurt central Berrien County very badly, but left other spots off the hook. This is why: Usually Lake Michigan keeps Berrien County’s rolling orchards and vineyards in the lake shadow, which provides a protective shield from this kind of cold, but not this time.

If you miss the buffer, you miss.” The buffer of the lake, that is. That’s what Mike Hildebrand, owner of Hildebrand Fruit Farms in Berrien Springs says happened, allowing temperatures to drop to -19.6 degrees on January 31st, and there was nothing he could do to save his peach trees. The peach crop is now a total loss.

The lake buffer also missed the rest of central Berrien County, home to the esteemed Lake Michigan Shore Wine Trail, which boasts over twenty wineries.

During the polar vortex, winds were blowing in from the southwest. This caused the insulating lake effect clouds and snow showers to stay farther north. It is this insulation that typically protects the orchards and vineyards in winter.

Jan 31, 2019

“We used to figure once every ten years we would lose a crop. We lost pretty much everything in 2012 with the screwy weather. It seems like once every five to seven years it’s happening now,” said Hildebrand.

This mirrors the words of Brian Carlson, winemaker for Tabor Hill, Round Barn and Free Run Cellars. The winery trio lost many varieties of wine grapes to the harsh temperatures.

Some varieties of wine grapes handle cold better than others. Vinifera wine grapes, which yield Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot can handle temperatures until they drop below negative five degrees. Hardy hybrid grapes can survive down to negative thirteen degrees. Lemon Creek Winery suffered the most severe damage in their Vinifera Wine Grapes. 

Taking a look back to January 30th and 31st, temperatures stayed below negative ten degrees for thirty-two hours straight, only warming up to negative fourteen during the day on January 30th before plummeting to negative twenty the next morning.

The wineries are still assessing the damage, but know that there has been a devastating loss. The wine makers are still unsure what they are going to do about the loss. We will continue to check in with the wineries and orchards as temperatures warm up and more information is available.

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